The Scale of Things

[raised mounds in the Beni region of the Amazon basin in Bolivia; evidence of a complex infrastructural landscape in zones previously considered to be untamed wilderness]

A fundamental tenet of an authentically American landscape theory comes from the very simple insight that scale matters. And in the Americas the landscape is defined by a very broad bandwidth of scales. These scales are not only spatial and temporal, pertaining to material objects, but are also historical and aesthetic. A typology of landscape objects is useful in attempting to grapple with the scale of things. For the moment let’s consider two prominent ones bringing together geology and hydrology: rivers and mountains. These two ur-landscapes have been the object of much study in recent landscape architecture and its allied fields.
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A comparative analysis of the world’s thirty-five largest river basins shows nine American rivers among the world’s largest and only one European river, the Danube at number twenty-nine. This pattern holds if one considers both sedimentary loads as well as flow rate of the rivers, complex factors that roughly correlate to drainage basin size. Similarly, prominence theory can be used to localize elevation changes in the landscape. Understood topologically, prominence is a first-derivative of elevation that represents the vertical discontinuity of an object on a surface manifold. Put simply, prominence is the relative elevation of a place to the surrounding terrain, and can be quantified by the lowest contour that surrounds a certain peak but no higher point. If used to comparatively analyze the terrain of the Americas and Europe we can see that a similar pattern emerges- nine of the thirty most prominent peaks in the world are found in the Americas, and only one in Europe. What emerges is a picture of a set of landscapes marked by massive objects existing at scales unknown in Europe.

[An analysis of the river basin size and sediment load of the world’s largest rivers. Looking at the rivers carrying the largest sediment load shows the Amazon in a class by itself, 3 other South American rivers at a scale similar to the Mississippi, and 9 total American rivers in the top 30. The Danube is the only European river that registers]

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Similarly if we move away from material objects and consider the realm of aesthetic experience, we find historical evidence that proves the American landscape pushed the senses beyond the pleasure and into the realm of the terrifying and fantastical. Of course, this also occurs in Europe, and indeed the aesthetic theory of the sublime was developed in response to the experience of the Alps. However, whether considering the mountains, trees, and rivers of America or the human-made objects, firsthand accounts by early European explorers and settlers provide copious evidence that American landscapes had the capacity to push people beyond the normal realm of aesthetic experience on a scale that did not exist in Europe. Jesuit priests working in western Argentina in the 17th century described the plants as terrible in size, with leaves that indicated they were familiar species but with features many times normal size, and the storms of the American cordillera as unlike anything experienced by Europeans. Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia wrote of the Natural Bridge that “it is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!” And the spectacle afforded by the American West was strong enough to help call forth an entirely new type of landscape- the national park.
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The scale at which American landscapes have been historically transformed by violence and immigration is again unmatched by anything ever seen in Europe, and the reciprocal nature of its relations to the landscape are fundamental in the Americas. Interpreted through the Eurocentric prism American landscapes, outside of a few select places such as the Aztec or Incan centers of power, have always been considered a wilderness marked by only the lightest touches made by small numbers of primitive natives living in scattered bands. Geographers William Denevan and William Cronon, among others, have shown the extent to which the notion of pristine wilderness was a Romantic construction having less to do with history and more to do with idealized projections. Denevan in his seminal work The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 uses first hand accounts as well as material evidence to propose that the population at contact was 53.9 million, a number that had fallen to 5.6 million by 1650. This represents a reduction of 89%! While impossible to verify, this revisionist history is in keeping with original documents recorded by early Europeans. The 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest Bartolome de las Casas wrote that the Americas were “full of people, like a hive of bees, so that it seemed as thought God had placed all, or the greater part of the entire human race in these counries.”
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Work in the fields of geography, anthropology, and archeology since this 1992 broadside have proven that the landscape was far from pristine. In fact, a better conceptual description for what Europeans and Creole Americans (those directly descended from Europeans) were experiencing is an anthropogenic landscape in the throes of ecological release. With the large-scale annihilation of indigenous societies went the lapse of construction and maintenance regimes of agricultural fields, hunting savannas, infrastructural transport networks, and population centers. Today we know that everything from airport runways to vacant lots to farms left fallow in hollowing out Rust-Belt regions undergo a process of rewilding. And from 1500 to 1850 this was happening at a continental scale. The American landscape has been historically notorious for other forms of large scale and continuous violence including slavery of Africans and indigenous peoples, frontier lawlessness, and the violence of modern day Detroit, São Paulo, or border towns such as Ciudad Juarez and the Triple Frontera of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.
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Lastly, the scale of immigration, and the degree to which large-scale and constant influx has shaped the societies and formed the landscapes of the Americas is difficult to fathom and utterly incomprehensible compared to anything that has occurred in Europe during modern times. During the long century from 1821-1932 over 53 million people immigrated to American nations, a number that is fully 22% of the entire population in 1932. While there were major regional differences, the general pattern is consistent: the percentage of 1932 US population accounted for by immigration during this time is 24%. And while the vast majority were from Europe, there were 17 different countries represented, in addition to inter-American and Asian immigration. The rapid and often violent formation of polyglot, mobile societies during this period within an immediately post-colonial context created a unique set of heterogenous and wildly dynamic conditions for landscape change based on imported cultural values and social expectations regarding use and aesthetics, in addition to hotly contested ideas of public space, productivity, and material extraction.
[nautical map of the Brazilian port city of Santos in the state of Sao Paulo; Santos is the largest industrial port in South America and has a population of half a million, with a metro area population of 1.5 million; recently major oil deposits were discovered off of the coast of Santos; in all of these ways it compares favorably with New Orleans, and should be case study for American port urbanisms]
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A valid question would be why this matters to the study and practice of landscape architecture? Although far too broad to be dealt with in any depth here (an entire doctoral thesis could be undertaken on the relationship between immigration and landscape change in any number of American landscapes, for instance) it is useful to finish with the example with which we began- the Louisiana Delta. In a verdant landscape built by a river system of the largest order and consistently dealing with storms of incredible magnitude we have a human population of wildly diverse ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds with a terrible and beautiful history of violence, cultural florescence, and industrial productivity at times working together, at other times violently at odds, and quite often completely oblivious of each other’s existence that somehow must develop methods for creating and maintaining public spaces, productive industrial infrastructures, disposing of material waste, constructing flood protection, building homes and producing agricultural products. This could not be more different from Rotterdam. The scale of things here, the magnitude of the objects and dynamics of the landscape, demands a rejection of European models and begs for the an examination of historical American precedents and the development of trans-American methodologies.

2 thoughts on “The Scale of Things

  1. Pingback: Three Landscape Approximations | landscape archipelago

  2. Pingback: Concluding with American Landscapes | landscape archipelago

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